Police censorship

writes in the Herald:

Sitting in front of me is a 20-page document. It’s my file. It doesn’t say much, because 17 of those pages are completely blacked out.

I requested my file because I’ve been deemed by the police to be unfit to conduct research – I’ve been banned from accessing basic and uncontroversial police data. As an academic who studies crime, this is rather crippling. It’s also a staggering abuse of power.

The police have deemed me unfit because of my “association with gangs”. This association won’t surprise many people: I did New Zealand’s largest ever study of gangs. It was long, exhausting and sometimes dangerous work, but it was worth it. The research culminated in an award-winning book, and academic publications all around the world.

To get my results I used – in part – an ethnographic method; in other words I hung out with the gangs.

I have been deemed unfit to undertake crime research because I know criminals through studying crime. Bloody hell.

This is ludicrous.

Famous economist Steven Levitt once did research on the economics of drug dealing for his book Freakonomics with Stephen Dubner. That involved spending time with gangs and drug dealers. Would the NZ Police also regard Steven Levitt as unfit to conduct research?

And a 20 page file on an academic? Sure if he has spent time with gangs as part of his research, I would expect some incidental notes about him, but 20 pages?

This Kafkaesque nightmare began when I was leading five researchers (all but one have PhDs and two are full professors) who were working for a large government agency wanting to investigate alcohol-related harms. Part of this project required some basic crime data from the police. It was then that I discovered the lengths police are going to to control research. This is not simply through excluding academics, as they did me, but through contracts that have to be signed to gain basic information. In our case legal opinions suggest that it should be available to any person who asks for it under the Official Information Act.

I would go further. I think all government data, by default, should be publicly available in machine readable format. Obviously personal details should not be included, but I’d love to see the criminal sector databases on convictions, sentencing, rehabilitation etc publicly available so NGOs, researchers and even companies can analyse the data and look for trends, correlations, possible causative factors etc.

The degree of control the police sought over research findings and publications was more than trifling. The research contracts demand that a draft report be provided to police. If the results are deemed to be “negative” then the police will seek to “improve its outcomes”. Both the intent and the language would have impressed George Orwell.

Researchers unprepared to yield and make changes face a clause stating the police “retain the sole right to veto any findings from release”. In other words, if an academic study said something the police didn’t like – or heaven forbid was in any way critical of the police – then the police could stop it being published.

Outrageous. This is not Police private data – this is Government data funded by taxpayers.

These demands were supported by threats. The contracts state that police will “blacklist” the researchers and “any organisations connected to the project … from access to any further police resources” if they don’t abide by police wishes.

Sigh.

After seeking information from the police about their sinister research contracts and to understand why I am banned, I am little the wiser. I have been told the decision to ban me is being reviewed. What I do know is that in an open democracy that puts such a high currency on free speech, the police should not be seeking to muzzle legitimate academic inquiry.

The Police should remove the ban on Dr Gilbert, and change their contracts. It is far enough to perhaps have a clause requiring them to see a draft of any research so they can critique it, but there should be no right of veto.

And further the Government should look at getting this data out of the exclusive control of state agencies, and into the public domain. If (for example) both the Sensible Sentencing Trust and JustSpeak could access criminal and corrections databases, then I’m sure we’d end up with better debate and understanding of criminal justice policies.

It took an OIA request and many months to discover that since the three strikes law came into force, the reoffending rate for strike offences has dropped 62% or so. That shouldn’t require an OIA request. Researchers should be able to find this out for themselves at any time.

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